Finding Your Niche in the Social Sector

At graduation time of year, the clichés come out. Commencement speakers encourage hope-filled graduates to “do what you love and the money will follow” and to “follow your passion.” As tired as these phrases may be, there is a simple wisdom behind them: many people find that the most rewarding careers are those rich in personal meaning, connection, and conviction.  If you are one of those people, then a career in the social sector is a great option.

In a sector comprised of nearly two million organizations, each with its own unique mission and culture, finding your niche begins with a thoughtful process of self-discovery. This article explores ways to leverage your passion into a fulfilling career at a nonprofit organization.

Conduct a Personal Inventory

Loc Truong, Career Advisor at Commongood Careers, approaches career advising as an exercise in self-discovery; he works with jobseekers to dig beneath the surface to define their skills and personal mission and then pushes them to discover where their ability and interest intersect and will have the most impact.

“When I ask jobseekers why they are interested in working at a particular type of nonprofit, I often hear a knee-jerk response of ‘I want to help people’ or ‘I just want to make a difference,’” Loc observes.  “Jobseekers need to get really clear. I recommend that jobseekers really think through their personal connection to an organization and its mission, and take time to fully understand how their skills and passion will add value to the organization’s work.”

To make the connection between your personal beliefs and professional work, Loc suggests starting by creating a personal inventory.  Be honest with yourself, and think about all aspects of your past and current experience, as well as your future goals, as you:

1. Make a list of your skills, particularly those that are transferable across work functions.  Include both hard skills (e.g. the ability to use Quicken for accounting tasks) and soft skills (e.g. the ability to be analytical).  Other sample soft skills include: Administration, Communication, Critical Thinking, Design and Planning, Human Relations and Interpersonal, Information Management, Leadership, Management, Research and Investigation, Project Management, Time Management

2. Make a list of your area(s) of interest, as well as any particular mission areas that interest you. Be as specific as you can. For example, if you are interested in public education, specify which aspects of this field are most important to you (e.g. improving the quality of academics at inner city schools or developing a culturally inclusive curriculum.)

3. Make a list of your personal values —the beliefs that drive your personal and professional life.  What is most important to you, regardless of your specific position or the organization for which you are working?

Sample personal values: Accountability, Collaboration, Compassion, Diversity, Efficiency, Empowerment, Flexibility, Generosity, Honesty, Individuality, Innovativeness, Learning, Optimism, Quality, Respect, Responsibility, Service, Stewardship, Teamwork, Wisdom

Once you have completed this self-inventory, research organizations and positions that align with your skills, interests, and values. Look carefully at specific roles and responsibilities, and keep an open mind about a range of roles at organizations that match your values and interests. For example, if you are passionate about after-school programming but cannot find a role in your area of expertise, consider other roles that leverage your transferable skills at these types of organizations.

Focus on Culture Fit

For Kevin Donahue, Senior Development Officer at Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), finding his niche in the nonprofit sector came down to one crucial element: cultural fit.  Prior to joining MLT about a year ago, Kevin worked in the corporate sector for a large financial services firm, an experience that motivated Kevin to explore what he valued in a work environment and career choice.

“Working in a large corporation, I came to realize that I was more interested in working at a smaller and more entrepreneurial organization,” says Kevin, “I knew I wanted to work in an environment of creative, talented people who weren’t afraid to take risks and who really believe in what they’re doing.  One thing that motivated me to make a change to the nonprofit sector was looking at work environment and the type of people around me,”

Kevin’s quantitative and analytical skills were easily transferable to a range of job opportunities but he says “I wanted to put my corporate training and background to good use at an organization that valued both organizational and social change.”

Kevin found that culture at MLT, a program dedicated to developing minority students into future business and nonprofit leaders.  “At MLT, we all work really hard and believe we’re making a huge impact,” Kevin says. “The work environment is what keeps us motivated and keeps energy high.”

Identifying with a particular work culture can be a key element of carving out a career niche.  In fact, in the social sector, cultural fit can be just as or even more important than skill fit.  To begin analyzing how specific organizations and job opportunities match with your desired work culture, consider the following questions:

  • How are decisions made?
  • How is information shared?
  • How are employees rewarded for good work?
  • How is the organizational chart mapped?
  • What are the values shared across staff?

The answers to these questions will help to provide an indication of how closely you identify with a particular organization’s culture.

Some Helpful Resources

When exploring your career niche, you might find career assessment tools—such as personality indicators and skill surveys—to be helpful.  There are literally hundreds of assessment tools available to jobseekers. The following online resources provide information on and links to some of these options:

The Riley Guide
Focusing on self-assessment resources, The Riley Guide walks through different categories of assessment instruments, such as personality indicators and skills surveys. This site is a great place to start to get a comprehensive overview of career assessment options.

Quint Careers
This site provides links to and descriptions of various self-assessment tools, with a focus on personality indicators.

About.com Career Planning
This site describes the different types of self-assessment instruments, and provides links to information about specific tools.


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org

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